West Virginia Book Festival

A Twain-themed trip to Hannibal, Missouri

Looking south from the banks of the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo., earlier this month.

“There their first crop of children was born, but as I was of a later vintage, I do not remember anything about it. I was postponed — postponed to Missouri. Missouri was an unknown new state and needed attractions.”

— “Chapters From My Autobiography,” Mark Twain

Hannibal, Missouri, has two things that set it apart from most small towns in America. One, it sits on the banks of the country’s great river, the Mississippi. Two, one of America’s foremost authors spent his formative years there.

Samuel L. Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, moved with his family to Hannibal when he was 4 years old, and stayed until he was 18. He used the people he met there, and the town itself, in dozens of novels, stories and sketches — most famously in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

On a trip earlier this month, I had the chance to visit Hannibal, now a town of about 18,000 residents. They have not forgotten their famous son. Businesses downtown include the Mark Twain Family Restaurant and Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Emporium. Attractions include the Mark Twain Riverboat (which you can see on the right in that top photo). And the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum comprises several buildings; the museum includes three floors worth of exhibits from Clemens’ life, the various editions of his books and the movies and other programs based on them.

A bust of Samuel Clemens inside the Mark Twain Museum.

That sounds like a lot, but it probably won’t take even the most dedicated Twain fan more than a couple of hours to make his or her way through the complex. Many of the outlying buildings — including Clemens’ boyhood home, his father’s justice of the peace office and the home of Huck Finn inspiration Tom Blankenship — don’t have a lot in the way of interactive exhibits. One of the buildings, the “Becky Thatcher House,” is closed until funds for renovations are raised.

As for the town of Hannibal itself — — it reminded me of some southern West Virginia towns whose businesses have been decimated by various economic forces. To be fair, it was out of season for (most) tourists, and several attractions had signs up saying they were closed for the season. With a bunch of people on the street, it might feel completely different.

But the one thing that remains from Clemens’ childhood, the one thing that you can imagine yourself seeing exactly the way he saw it, is the river. We listened to Twain’s “Chapters From My Autobiography” on the way out to Missouri, and one of the hundreds of anecdotes involved young Sam Clemens and a friend clandestinely ice-skating on the frozen Mississippi after dark. Clemens said they were “halfway to Illinois” when they heard the ominous sound of the ice cracking. He and his friend headed back to the Missouri shore, but they had to wait every time the moon went behind a cloud, because they couldn’t see where the ice was still good. Clemens made it back safe, but his friend did not; the boy plunged into the frigid water, fell ill as a result and eventually lost his hearing. It’s a good story on its own, but to hear it and then look out over the Mississippi — man, that is a big river. Halfway across is a long way from land.

Clemens has a familial connection to West Virginia as well. His grandparents, Samuel and Pamela Clements, lived on the banks of the Ohio River in what is now Mason County – although I seem to remember there’s some dispute over the particulars of that history. But there’s a highway historical marker, so it must be true, right?

Chuck Kinder on writing and Pittsburgh

Chuck Kinder. Photo by Ohad Cadji / Sampsonia Way

Blog contributor Phyllis Wilson Moore directed my attention a few weeks ago to an interview with Chuck Kinder — who is, among many other things, a Fayette County native, a Michael Chabon character basis, a Lee Maynard faux-nemesis and a longtime creative writing professor at the University of Pittsburgh (although he recently gave that up after some health problems).

The interview in Sampsonia Way magazine — which calls itself an “online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh celebrating literary free expression and supporting persecuted writers worldwide” — is worth reading in its entirety, but I was struck by his thoughts about Pittsburgh, which has always been one of my favorite cities. Kinder says:

… [T]here’s sort of a romantic aura about Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s the kind of city you like to walk around in when it’s raining. It’s like walking through a wonderful old 19th century photograph. It’s the lights on the street. It just has an amazing texture. It seems just like you’re walking through, beside, into, and out of history. It’s haunted in a wonderful sense. Great old houses. Great neighborhoods. And all the great jazz traditions: Billy Strayhorn. There’s just an atmosphere about Pittsburgh. It’s a wonderful city to be a young writer in.

World Book Night giveaway books announced

A burgeoning book tradition will continue next April when people across the United States (and at least three other countries) will hand out books to their fellow citizens, on World Book Night.

What books will they be handing out, you ask? The list was announced on Thursday, and there should be something for everyone in there. Current fiction and mystery, classics, history, memoirs, young adult books … you name it. There are 30 in all, and special editions will be printed for the event.

But these books won’t hand themselves out. You can apply right now to give books out in your community. Then you may get to quite literally give the gift of reading on April 23 (a date fraught with literary meaning: Shakespeare’s birthday and death day, as near as we can tell; Cervantes’ death day; the UNESCO International Day of the Book; and a book-giving holiday in Spain).

Last year was the first time that World Book Night spread to the United States, and at least a few West Virginians were among those participating.

This year, potential distributors have to specify their first, second and third choices. I was trying to narrow it down, and I was having a hard time — not to say “The Worst Hard Time,” Timothy Egan’s award-winning history of the Dust Bowl, which is one of the books on the list. I might pick that — or J.R. Moehringer’s memoir “The Tender Bar,” or Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” or Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” or the 50-year-old children’s classic “The Phantom Tollbooth,” or the hilarious Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collaboration “Good Omens,” or … hell, I don’t know. It’s free books, and there’s not really a bad choice on the list.

On the Los Angeles Times “Jacket Copy” book blog, Carolyn Kellogg notes that some booksellers have not wholeheartedly supported World Book Night, because they don’t like what they’re selling being given away for free. But event organizers have said that the giveaway can actually increase book sales. “As the drug-dealing cliche goes,” Kellogg writes, “the first taste is always free.”

Former president Bill Clinton (left) is introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Pa., at a campaign rally for President Obama in Pittsburgh on Monday. AP Photo by Gene J. Puskar

Did you hear about the time a former president of the United States almost came to the West Virginia Book Festival?

If not, Election Day seems like a good time to tell the story. (I wasn’t there for this bit of Book Festival history, but I heard the story several times afterward, including from one of the direct participants, so I’ve got the gist right. If not, I’m sure someone will correct me.)

It was Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007, the first day of the festival. It was also the day of the state Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner and fundraiser. The two events often coincide, but don’t clash, because the JJ Dinner is in the evening at the Marriott.

That year, though, West Virginia Democrats hooked a big fish: former president Bill Clinton. They broke all kinds of records with their ticket sales (surpassing that first-term Illinois senator who was here the previous year; whatever happened to him?).

So expecting a crowd of several thousand, the Democrats moved their event to the Civic Center, home of the Book Festival. Things were a little crowded, and as I recall, the festival got some spillover crowd from early arrivals to the Clinton event. The backstage rooms and hallways were also set up differently to accommodate the 42nd president.

Late Saturday afternoon, Secret Service agents asked Book Festival workers and attendees in a few rooms to stay where they were as the former president made his way through the hallways of the arena. Everyone agreed, and the Secret Service set up curtains along the route that Clinton was to take.

After a while, a few Book Festival workers heard approaching footsteps. I don’t know if they heard that familiar Arkansas drawl, but they knew who it was, and it was too much for one of them.

As the footsteps were nearby, she yelled (or at least said audibly), “Yay, Bill!”

The footsteps stopped. The curtains flew open.

In his best Elvis style, Bill Clinton said, “Hello, ladies.”

I gather the reaction, although enthusiastic, was more restrained than, say, a Beatles show in 1964. Clinton walked around and shook everyone’s hand. One of the workers asked if he was coming, or wanted to come, to the Book Festival.

Clinton sighed, and said, “I wish I were going to the Book Festival.”

And then he was gone, whisked off to his fundraiser.

A few West Virginia literary notes

There have been a few subjects and events I’ve wanted to mention on the blog lately, but life has gotten in the way, so I’m going to run them down quick:

| First of all, the West Virginia Writers fall conference, originally scheduled this weekend in Elkins, has been postponed. On their website, the WV Writers are adamant that it hasn’t been canceled and it will be rescheduled.

| You may know that Marc Harshman gave his initial reading as West Virginia poet laureate at last month’s West Virginia Book Festival. If you didn’t get to hear him, Vic Burkhammer has video of Harshman reading one of his poems, “A Winter of Sweets,” up on his (Vic’s) Mountainword poetry blog.

| Charleston Gazette columnist and reporter Rick Steelhammer has updated 1994’s “The Book of West Virginia Lists,” which has now become “The Ultimate Book of West Virginia Lists.” As James Casto wrote in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, “While Steelhammer concedes it’s a safe bet that the National Book Award will go to another author this year, he hopes his little book is worthy of a home, ‘if not in your bookcase, on your fishing camp windowsill or bathroom shelf.'”